OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR)– Two federal lawsuits have been filed against State Superintendent Ryan Walters and his Chief Policy Advisor, Matt Langston for wrongful termination. One of the former Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) employees involved in the lawsuits claims he was fired for voicing his concerns over the proposed ‘Comprehensive Teacher Pay Reform‘ initiative.

Matthew Colwell worked as the OSDE School Success Program Manager in the Division of Federal Programs.

Colwell joined OSDE in January 2022.

“We really worked hard to build a positive culture in our office and also a way to really be supportive to districts kind of when we started. We want to do everything we can to free up the most available uses of these funds as possible because we know that’s going to help kids,” said Colwell.

He recalled the first ten months of his position as “really great,” but then Ryan Walters took office and everything changed.

“A lot of news stories, a lot of districts calling us with questions like, ‘Hey, are federal funds going away?’ Just trying to navigate how to allay those fears while also, you know, still being unsure about what are we allowed to say, you know, like the process for communication in the transition with the change,” stated Colwell.

One of Colwell’s first concerns was those involved in the new administration didn’t come from an educational background.

“It’s sort of a challenge because every time anything related to schools like explaining the difference between a district and a school like little stuff, you know, just like, you know, baby steps. We had to convert a one pager to 4 to 6 bullet points for Superintendent Walters because I needed to translate it like I’m talking to a five year old,” explained Colwell.

Colwell said the idea of a ‘Comprehensive Teacher Pay Reform’ then started to bounce around OSDE.

Supt. Walters announced the initiative on April 26.

“For decades, Oklahoma has struggled to recruit and maintain quality teachers in the state. Under my administration, I will reverse this trend with my Comprehensive Teacher Pay Reform
initiative. This will empower local school districts to compete for and attract the right talent
needed for their unique circumstances. The best and brightest teachers throughout Oklahoma and the country should be teaching right here in our own backyard,” said Supt. Walters on April 26.

Under the initiative’s recruitment program, a new teacher could receive up to a $50,000 signing bonus for a five-year commitment.

The signing bonus breakdown is as follows:

  • Less than 3 years experience: $15,000. If teaching in a rural or high poverty district: $20,000
  • 3+ years experience: $25,000. If teaching in a rural or high poverty district: $30,000
  • 5+ years experience and teaching in a rural or high poverty district: $50,000
  • 5+ years experience teaching special education: $50,000
  • Teachers moving to Oklahoma with less than 5 years experience: $25,000
  • Teachers moving to Oklahoma with more than 5 years experience: $50,000.

In order to receive the signing bonus, teachers must commit to teaching five years in a critical shortage area (PK-3 or PK-12 special education). Teachers who leave their teaching position before the five-year period will be required to pay back a pro-rated amount.

“It has to be reasonable, necessary and applicable. The necessary and applicable is, you know, is this funding for schools. You can’t use it to buy airplane parts. But the reasonable side was the one that really jumped out because when I saw these numbers, $15,000 to $50,000, I mean, a starting teacher, you know, makes half of that. $38,000, I think, is the state minimum,” added Colwell.

He told KFOR the “reasonable” aspect of this is to ensure there’s zero waste in government.

Colwell stated OSDE had never offered more than $2,500 for a single year in teacher recruitment stipends, so this proposed plan was a massive increase.

State statute says incentive stipends are restricted to no more than 50% of the regular salary of the teacher. That was signed into law in 2010.

His other concern was the funding and what would happen if a teacher failed to fulfill the 5-year commitment.

In an email from the United States Department of Education, a representative said if funds are returned before the performance period ends on September 30, 2024, USDE would be able to use those funds for other allowable uses under ARP.

If the funds are not returned after the end of the performance period, the state must repay those funds to the federal government, according to the USDE.

Colwell feared the plan could backfire on Oklahoma taxpayers and cost them in the ballpark of $18M, including possible interest accrued.

“It was misleading to districts, but also it was placing the state and state taxpayers at risk of having to pay additional taxes on these funds because they have to be used for the specific purpose,” explained Colwell.

The USDE also states OSDE is responsible for determining “reasonableness.”

Colwell also brought up the concern of a 5-year commitment.

“Teacher contracts in the state are only allowed to be one year. There’s only one education contract that can extend more than one year and that’s a Superintendent’s and that is only for three years. And so there’s some questions about whether that sort of contract is even legally binding,” stated Colwell.

With a mountain of concerns, Colwell reached out to several OSDE employees on April 27.

“I had sent the email about the state law. I had sent the email and had several meetings like even just that day. And there was no response. I was worried. I was concerned that there wouldn’t be a response,” said Colwell. “I’m a taxpayer. I’m fairly fiscally conservative myself. I, you know, want to make sure that our tax money goes to the places it needs to go.”

Without any direction, Colwell decided to take his concerns to the State Attorney General’s Office and State Representative Andy Fugate (OKC-D) in mid-May.

News 4 reached out to the Attorney General’s Office on May 30 about Colwell’s claims.

“The information was shared with our office and we are reviewing it,” said a representative.

Rep. Fugate told KFOR his initial reaction to Colwell’s email was, “Oh my. I think we’ve stepped in something.”

“I think it’s telling that Mr. Colwell, in his position, was not consulted about how they might use those funds before they came up with the scheme that they did,” said Rep. Fugate. “What he said to the Attorney General, what he sent to me, what he sent to his own superiors at the State Board of Education is we need to look out for these things as we’re trying to do this program. These may be potential concerns going down the road as we’re planning and executing on this. Let’s account for those things. And for that, he got fired. It’s either that or because he reached out to the Attorney General and he reached out to me. These are not [Supt. Walters’] employees. They are employees of the people of Oklahoma.”

Rep. Fugate said the concerns Colwell expressed have been echoed on both sides of the political aisle “as we watch the Superintendent building a dumpster fire out of a place he said he inherited as a dumpster fire.”

Because the Attorney General has been made aware of Colwell’s claims, Rep. Fugate said there isn’t much legislators can do at this time.

As Colwell said he tried to help Oklahomans and essentially OSDE’s administration by voicing his concerns, he was fired on May 26.

Colwell said he tried asking the reason for his termination, but was refused.

“In the short term, it has really been pretty horrible going through just the process of, you know, just getting fired out of the blue. Insurance gets cut off at the end of May, so trying to worry about my kids having, you know, just all sorts of stuff, you know, having a budget now,” explained Colwell.

However, he said even with the current outcome, he would do it all over again if it meanr Oklahomans being in the know.

“Those people who are on the front lines need to be who we trust. We trust them with the people’s money and in return they should be allowed to whistle blow and it’s fortunate that we have people like Matt Colwell who will step up and say, ‘Hey, what we’re doing may be wrong,'” said Rep. Fugate.

Colwell is now applying for other jobs, continuing to look for something in education.

News 4 reached out to OSDE with questions Thursday afternoon.

“The concerns are if the proposed plan is “reasonable” as defined in 2 CFR section 200.404 and what the responsibilities of OSDE would be for repayment of the award if teachers do not fulfill their 5-year commitment. Can OSDE show clearly that these stipends involved in the proposed plan are reasonable? What are the OSDE’s responsibilities when it comes to repayment if the 5-year commitment is not fulfilled? Mr. Colwell also claims he was not given a reason as to why he was terminated. Was he terminated because he shared information with people outside of OSDE?,” asked News 4 Reporter, Kaylee Olivas in an email.

None of those questions were answered, but OSDE spokesperson, Justin Holcomb did send a statement.

“Instead of relying on the misguided opinion of a disgruntled former employee, your news agency should do the required homework and reach out to the Department of Education in Washington to get an official statement on this matter. It’s a shame that your audience, the good people of Oklahoma, have to rely on such lazy and incompetent reporting to get their daily news,” stated Holcomb.

News 4 has since followed up with Holcomb asking again for an answer to the previous questions, but he hasn’t replied.